Beginning the UK end-game

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Alex Salmond’s stop-start independence referendum to be held in 2014 will change the shape of the UK irrevocably, whatever the result  

So it appears that there will, after all, be a referendum on independence for Scotland and it will be binding.

There had been doubts over the summer about whether Scotland’s date with destiny would happen at all. Some MPs in Westminster had begun to suspect that First Minister Alex Salmond was running cool on the idea – since the polls have been saying that he would lose – and intended to scuttle the project and blame London. But Salmond demonstrated his seriousness by appointing his most valued ministerial colleague, the deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon, as cabinet secretary with responsibility for the referendum.

Agreement had to be reached by early October if a Section 30 order was to be passed in Westminster in time to give the Scottish Parliament the legal authority to hold a binding referendum. Prime Minister David Cameron insisted that he would only authorise this if Salmond agreed to hold a referendum with one straight question and no second-best options on the ballot paper offering ‘devolution max’. A deal was struck. The one question will be put on or around October 2014, as Salmond always intended, so both sides can claim victory.

We’ve been living with the will-they-won’t-they referendum for so long now that we have tended to forget how remarkable this is. The UK government has effectively held a gun to its head, and placed Scottish fingers on the trigger. In two years time, one of the most successful unions in history, the United Kingdom, could be no more. For three hundred years, Scots and English have stood together, in war and peace, and mutually prospered. Now they may be about to go their own separate ways.

The opinion polls suggest that the independence option will lose, as only a third of Scots voters say they want to leave the UK. But the ‘Yes Scotland’ campaign is increasingly confident that many of the Scots (about 40% in polls) who say they want a parliament with more powers within the UK will switch to independence. Salmond is arguing that the only way Scots can achieve ‘devolution max’, since it will not be on the ballot paper, is to vote for independence.

The Scottish National Party has been moderating its tone on independence and insisting that the Queen, the pound sterling, the Bank of England and Nato membership will continue if Scots vote yes. In short, they will be voting, not to leave the UK, but to create a better, more equal union. Perhaps.

But they will also be voting to dissolve the union with England, withdraw Scottish representation from Westminster and end public spending subsidies from London. The President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, has also caused fury in nationalist circles by appearing to say that, as a ‘new state’, Scotland would have to reapply for EU membership. Scotland’s continued membership can no longer be taken for granted.

These and other issues are set to dominate political debate in Scotland for the next 24 months. Hopefully, the whole of the UK will be involved, since all of it is likely to be affected. The coalition has given Scots the right of secession. But the impact of a breakup will be felt throughout these islands.

My own view is that, whatever the vote’s outcome, the UK will be changed radically. What will emerge is a looser, more federal Britain, where Scotland largely determines its own economic affairs, while remaining within the UK as far as broader matters of currency, foreign affairs and defence are concerned. Will it be for the better? We’ll soon find out.

Iain Macwhirter is political commentator on the Sunday Herald

About Iain Macwhirter

Iain Macwhirter is political commentator on the Sunday Herald

6 comments on Beginning the UK end-game

  1. Peter A Bell says:

    Sometimes I wonder what country these journalists are writing about from inside their bubble. Little or none of the above seems to refer to the country where I live – which happens also to be called Scotland. Had I time, I’d pick apart some of the more obvious nonsense. Like the claim that there has been doubt over whether the referendum would happen at all. One solitary “Scottish” Labour blogger has been banging on about his inane personal conspiracy theory involving Salmond plotting to cancel the vote. This does not constitute uncertainty over the referendum. It merely suggests doubts about the judgement of those who stoop to taking such drivel seriously.

    I won’t bother about the other glaring errors as I am aware that, in their arrogance, journalists don’t listen to any criticism. Indeed, I’ll be surprised if this post is published here. Although I circumvent such censorship by ensuring my comments are posted in other places.

    The only thing I can’t help but remark on is the startling silliness of the final paragraph in which Mr Macwhirter suggests that the outcome of the referendum will be the same regardless how we vote. To believe this one must suppose that a YES vote will result in something less than independence. This is almost as ludicrous as believing Ian Smart’s “referendum denial” stuff. Mr Macwhirter does not deign to explain why an SNP Scottish Government would abandon its primary aim having achieved it. Which is a pity, because I’m sure that would have been a work of supreme imagination.

    Neither does Macwhirter explain by what process a NO vote might result in an outcome that nobody is supporting and which the Bitter Together campaign explicitly opposes. Is it really credible that a NO vote will be interpreted as a vote for more powers? Or is it more easy to accept that it will be represented as a once-and-for-all rejection of independence; a resounding affirmation of the union; and a democratic mandate to roll back devolution?

    That may be a worst-case scenario. But it is considerably more plausible than the naive notion that a NO vote will magically transform fanatical British nationalists into committed devolutionists. At least, that’s how it appears from here in Scotland – outside the bubble.

  2. Mike Keene says:

    From an English point of view, the best thing about a Yes vote would be that the MP for Midlothian and all other Scottish MPs (mostly Labour) would cease to exist, thus finally solving Tam Dalyell’s famous ‘Midlothian Question’.

  3. TamD says:

    So, we will end up with Indy-lite then? Better than Devo-anything and we get to save loads of money without having to go to war every year.

  4. Peter Mechan says:

    Iain, a good and thought-provoking article as so often from you but I was a wee bit disappointed in seeing repetition of two incorrect statements. Firstly, Scotland will not secede from the UK, the UK itself will be dissolved – a hugely important difference (a marriage does not continue when one partner leaves, they are both single after that). Following on from this, Barroso was not only not referring to Scotland (he was referring to Catalonia), his discussion of EU status was in regard to a ‘region’ leaving its ‘mother country’. As I have stated, Scotland is not a region and it will not be leaving the UK, the UK will be ending. Hope you can correct these details, they have for too long been repeated incorrectly.

  5. DougtheDug says:

    Doubts over the referendum happening with Alex Salmond personally scuttling it?

    If you write down something like that you should at least come up with some evidence that you can use to defend it. Otherwise it’s just scribblings from Westminster fantasy land.

    I’m also puzzled about the statement that the referendum has been agreed to be only one question. The SNP has always kept the offer of a devo-max question open to the unionist side and I’ve seen no reports that they’ve withdrawn that offer. I’m also puzzled as to how Alex Salmond could strike a deal on only one question when the power to put a second question on the ballot paper has always rested with the unionist side. To make a deal you have to have something to deal with and the SNP has never had the power to put a devo-max question on the ballot paper which would have a snow-ball’s chance in hell of making it through Westminster as a bill.

    If this is the most successful union in history and we’ve all mutally prospered then why do a large number of Scots want out? It’s certainly been successful for England which has seen its economy and population grow but Scotland has fallen behind both in terms of economic and population growth.

    Again have you any evidence that Alex Salmond has said that voting yes to independence will bring about devo-max. I’ve never heard him say that or heard it from any other member of the SNP government in Scotland. Evidence please.

    If Scots vote yes then they will leave the UK. Scotland will be an independent state just as independent as Finland or the Netherlands or Germany. So they won’t have representation in Westminster which will be the parliament of a neighbouring state and there will be no money coming from Westminster to fund public services. What country funds public services in a neighbouring state? Scotland will be able to fund its own public services free from the slash and burn policies of Westminster.

    As Peter Bell said in his comment the idea that voting yes or no in the independence referendum will result in the same outcome is ludicrous. Yes will result in an independent state while no will mean no more devolution and probably some of the current devolved powers rolled back to Westminster.

    The idea that if Scots vote no to independence then Westminster will hand over lots more power to the Scottish parliament when even as a spoiler it won’t hand over any now in the face of an imminent threat of Scottish independence says that your political radar burned out a long time ago.

  6. Edward Harkins says:

    “… the more obvious nonsense… his inane personal conspiracy theory… merely suggests doubts about the judgement of those who stoop to taking such drivel seriously… the startling silliness…”

    A wise older person long ago gave me the sage advice that the comments that some people target at others, tells you more about the person originating the remarks than their targets or the subject matter.

    I on’t know about ‘bubbles’ but I live in Scotland and the only conclusion I can come to is that the originator of these remarks has wholly and completely either missed or misunderstood the entire point of Iain Macwhirter’s rather incisive and cogent article. And can we please have more recourse to decent, mutually respectful and reasonably mannered debate and exchanges that more and more of us are calling for on these fundamental and important issues?


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